Driving smart city innovation with open sensor data

City at night

This is part one of a five-part series that looks at successful strategies we at OpenDataSoft have seen our clients and others use to foster innovation and align their smart city and open data goals. The complete series is available as a free PDF download.

For many years, open access to data has been viewed as an important means of improving government transparency and accountability and deepening citizen engagement, and today hundreds of local and national governments worldwide are using open data portals to publish data and documents that they produce over the course of their operations.

But open data has proven to be more than just tool for advancing open government and citizen engagement, it is proving itself to be an important tool for developing innovative solutions that advance core quality of life, sustainability and economic development goals.

Illustrative <a href="http://smartcities.gov.in/writereaddata/SmartCityGuidelines.pdf">list of smart city solutions</a> from the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, June 2015
Illustrative list of smart city solutions from the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, June 2015

This is especially true today as new and innovative approaches are being sought to perennial urban challenges such as water, waste, and energy management in addition to transportation and mobility. Many of the highest impact approaches use technology to support innovation, optimization and automation of services and infrastructures. This is driving an investment in technology-driven “smart city” solutions that analysts like Frost & Sullivan forecast will hit US$1.6 trillion by 2020.

Over the course of our work with cities over the past five years, we have compiled notes about what works and what doesn’t for cities as they seek to foster smart city innovation through intelligent uses of open smart city data, or more specifically, open access to real-time streams of data coming from the sensors and meters that are beginning to permeate the urban landscape. This five-part series looks at five of the strategies we have seen our clients and others use to succeed in this alignment of smart city development and open data in the new Internet of Things inspired era of intelligent and connected cities.

In Strategy 1 of the series, we look at open sensor data exploitation in the context of inexpensive, low-tech options for advancing smart city goals. In Strategy 2, we discuss the valuable role pilot projects and open sensor data can play in ensuring solid returns for smart city initiatives. In Strategy 3, we explore the important role of open data sharing and collaboration with residents, civic tech communities and ecosystem partners in driving smart city innovation. In Strategy 4, we look at the ways cities are ensuring they have full access to their data, and can share it with others. And, in the final Strategy, we discuss two must-have technologies for succeeding with open sensor data.

Strategy 1: Sometimes the smartest tech is low-tech

While the phrase “smart city” means different things to different people, the concept generally includes the use of information and communication technologies to make cities healthier, safer and more enjoyable places to live. Oftentimes, it is highly advanced flavors of ICT that capture the most attention in smart city discussions, including topics like the Internet of Things, Machine-to-Machine automation, broadband WiFi, big data visualization, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles.

However, in many cities across the globe, it is ‘low-tech’ solutions that are playing the most important role today in improving the quality of life of citizens, enhancing government transparency and trust, and improving environmental and economic sustainability. This is particularly true in developing cities where budgets are especially constrained and population growth rates are at their highest.

In particular, low-tech collaborative technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits, offer cities of all sizes affordable alternative ways to collect data, use resources more efficiently, and make better decisions – and they empower citizens to play a key role in shaping the future of their cities.

In the thoughtful 2015 Nesta report, “Rethinking Smart Cities from the Ground Up,” the authors observe that while some ‘top down’ smart city initiatives have been marred by high costs and low returns, such citizen-centric, low-tech “collaborative technologies” are showing much promise in delivering high value results at a low cost. Consider, for instance, the Digital Matatus project in Nairobi, Kenya.

A low-tech lesson from Nairobi

The Digital Matatus project began when the University of Nairobi, Columbia, MIT and Groupshot got together to create a digital map of Nairobi’s privately owned and operated matatu mini-buses, on which 3.5 million people depend for their daily transport needs.

Armed with smartphones, volunteer college students rode the buses every day for several months and transmitted data via mobile phones. This data was used to plot routes, stops and intervals in a first-ever digital map of this informal transit system. The team also worked with Google to adapt its General Transit Feed Specification standard to accommodate inconsistent transit networks so that the data could be pushed to services such as Google Maps.

The official Matatu map of Nairobi developed by the project team.  Sarah Williams and Wenfei Xu, MIT Civic Data Design Lab
The official Matatu map of Nairobi developed by the project team.  Sarah Williams and Wenfei Xu, MIT Civic Data Design Lab

The Digital Matatus project gave the government its first comprehensive view of the existing informal system to guide transit planning, and it is being used by UN HABITAT to guide the Bus Rapid Transit it is helping Nairobi to develop. Citizens are benefitting from mobile apps for smart (and not-so-smart) phones to plan trips and discover efficient routes they didn’t even know existed. Even matatu drivers are using the data to plan more routes to underserved areas and reduce congestion on saturated routes. And, as the data, maps and apps are free and available to the public, the project provides a crowd-sourced model other cities can replicate for their informal transit systems.

This project and others like it, such as the World Bank-sponsored waste management project in Maputo, Mozambique that uses crowdsourcing via mobile apps to gather input from citizens and waste collectors about trash removal issues, show that open innovation from open sensor data is playing a key role in smart city development worldwide. This is the case even if a government doesn’t have the financial resources to purchase big ticket solutions such as those from IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Intel and Microsoft.

In addition to these two examples, there are many helpful examples from around the world available in the Rethinking Smart Cities report, including the following:

  • In Jakarta, Indonesia, a real-time map of flooding in the city has been created by crowdsourcing flood reports from Twitter. Twitter is further being used by Jakarta residents to organize shared car journeys.
  • In London and many other cities, residents are using mobile phones to report issues like potholes, broken streetlights and overflowing trash bins to municipal authorities.
  • In Paris and Reykjavik, Iceland, citizens are using online platforms to propose, discuss and vote on ideas for improving the city, like the vertical garden project in Paris that received over 20,000 votes and will now receive €2 million in funding.
  • In Bangalore, India, residents will soon be able to use smartphones and SMS to map abandoned urban spaces, which they identified as one of their primary concerns.
  • In Beijing and other Chinese cities, residents are starting to use low-cost sensors such as the PiMi Airbox to measure and map air pollution in their city

Even on the no-tech side, there are many options for cities to advance their smart city goals. For example, cities can encourage biking and walking as alternative transportation modes through city planning, policies and regulations, or educational campaigns, as IDC’s Ruthbea Yesner Clarke and Massimiliano Claps suggest.

However, whether low-tech or no-tech, one essential element these citizen-centric solutions share is the use of open data and open platforms to mobilize collective knowledge and transform it into innovative solutions.

So as your city explores options for advancing smart city goals using ICT, take time to reflect on how you can engage citizens in collaborative uses of common existing technologies like mobile phones, social media, online platforms and low-cost sensor kits to shape a brighter future for your city. And make sure to open your data to keep innovation and engagement flowing.

Check back in next week for Strategy 2, which looks at the valuable role pilot projects and open sensor data can play in ensuring high returns for smart city initiatives. You can also download the complete five-part series.

About Jean-Marc Lazard

Jean-Marc Lazard is the co-founder and CEO of OpenDataSoft, a SaaS sensor-ready open data portal. He was previously the Head of Innovation and Strategic Projects at Exalead (Dassault Systèmes) for 5 years, and led innovative IT projects in the food-processing and retail industries for 9 years. Sparking off and monitoring several startup projects, he is also an expert at Cap Digital, a business cluster for digital transformation. A graduate of EDHEC Business School, Jean-Marc also has a degree in Applied Mathematics.

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